In search of Joseph Roth

Picture above: Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, by Keiron Pim (Granta, October 2022)


Berlin-based author Paul Scraton explores the mercurial life of Joseph Roth, the Austro-Hungarian writer profiled in a new biography by Keiron Pim and published by Granta Books in October 2022.

At Rembrandtstrasse 35, just north of the Danube Canal in Vienna, there was not much to see. A late 19th-century building. In front of the house a narrow bike path. A couple of young people crossing the street to find shade and escape the hot summer sun. On Google maps the location was memorialised. A white chess rook with a red background. ‘Joseph Roth Wohnung’, the map said, between a photography studio and a LehrerInnenberatungszentrum. But in the real world, there was nothing to suggest the writer had ever called this place home.

I walked on, to the boundaries of the Augarten, a large public park where a Second World War flak tower rose from the greenery against the blue sky. A quiet, mostly residential neighbourhood gave way to streets lined with cafés and restaurants, drugstores and bric-a-brac shops. On the corner of Wallensteinstraße and Klosterneuburger Straße a branch of Bank Austria had a steady stream of customers passing through the doors to use the cash machines. On the wall, around the corner and beside a tram stop, a square of polished stone and a collection of carved words offered the minimal information necessary for such a memorial:

WOHNTE 1914 – 1916
(1894 – 1939)

As I stood back on the pavement, as far as I could to take a photograph without stepping into the road, I waited for people to pass and a gap in the flow of pedestrians. No one else gave the small memorial even a second look.

Why do we search out these places that are connected to the lives of writers, musicians, artists and others, even when more than a hundred years have passed and the building and the world outside has changed beyond all recognition? And why, in the case of Joseph Roth – that brilliant but flawed novelist and journalist, whose words have helped shape my worldview and continue to inspire decades after his death – did I feel so compelled to break off from our normal summer holiday activities to search out these modest landmarks of his life in Vienna?

The English-language collection of Roth’s journalism from Berlin between 1920 and 1933 bears the title What I Saw, and perhaps ‘what he saw’ is something of an explanation. For while many celebrate Roth as a novelist, not least for his widely regarded masterpiece The Radetzky March, it has always been his journalism and his Feuilleton articles so rooted in place that keep drawing me back to his work. Roth went to places and wrote about them. What he saw. And it was in that spirit that I wanted to return to places where I knew he had once been, to get a feel for what had changed and for what remained.

I also knew that, waiting for me back in Berlin, was a pre-publication copy of Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, by Keiron Pim. I have never met Pim, but we’ve been in contact via social media and email since I wrote an essay about Roth a few years ago and was put in contact via a mutual friend. Sometimes I’ve bonded with people over a shared affection for Liverpool Football Club, Bruce Springsteen, walking in the mountains or other interests. More rarely it has been over a particular writer, but Joseph Roth is something of an exception. I can think of a number of good friends with whom I share an interest in Roth, his work and his life – two of whom are of course the editors of hidden europe – and one of the things we share in our interest is the desire to revisit some of the places Roth wrote about to see what we might find.

Endless Flight opens with a wonderful depiction of Brody in Western Ukraine where Roth was born, both then and now. In writing this biography, Pim intended to visit the various stations of Roth’s life, from where he was born in 1894 in what was then the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary through a vagabond life, including notable periods in Vienna and Berlin, to his death in Paris in 1939. Pim notes in the text that the pandemic scuppered some of these plans and – indeed – that the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have already rendered his contemporary depictions of Brody and elsewhere out of date, but from the beginning it is clear that this is the story of a life where the place itself really matters, and that it can not only be told from a desk, among the library shelves or deep in the archives.

Late in the book, Pim has Roth sitting in a café in Paris, drinking away the afternoon across the street from the demolished remains of a hotel that was – for sixteen years – his home.

As he drank, he thought about place, time and memory, how they entwine and interrelate; that when a cherished place disappears and an era thus ends, we grasp our memories and they grow brighter in the mind, just as the reality fades away. He drank and ruminated, he watched people come and go: a woman whom he used to love, an elderly man shuffling in slippers, a taxi driver who paused from his work for a glass of wine, a few boisterous men who laughed at the waiter’s antics.

Place was central to Roth’s work, whether fiction or journalism. The places that he visited to write about. The places that he remembered, to become settings for his novels and stories. The places that he could still visit and those that no longer existed, whether because they had been destroyed or simply made inaccessible to him. Place matters, especially for someone who has nowhere to call home.

The biography is well titled. From childhood on, Roth was in flight. What was he running from? What was he looking for? As a writer he was a fantastic observer of others, whether in an amusement park or a downbeat bar, on the street corner or in the synagogue. When looking at his work as a whole you soon get a sense for his preoccupations, the themes that he returns to time and again as he continues his endless flight from Brody, in particular the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of nationalism and the fate of the Jews in Europe – of which he was one.

You cannot help read Roth, especially his journalism from the 1920s and early 1930s, and not feel the resonance of his words today. History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are often echoes and rhymes. As nationalist movements built their support, Roth was aware of the dangers, unlike many of his contemporaries. When I interviewed Pim for my essay a few years ago, he told me that Roth’s “themes resonate powerfully with modern readers. Like him, we live in a world where we’re disorientated by the decline of grand unifying projects, while amidst the uncertainty, demagogues vie for populist appeal with programmes of division and ethno-nationalism.”

It is why we continue to read Roth a century on, and it is why Pim’s biography is so well timed. But sadly, Roth’s story offers very little in the way of consolation or indeed an answer. Roth left Berlin for the final time the morning after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, writing a letter to his good friend Stefan Zweig as he went:

It will become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.

Six years later Roth would be dead at the age of 44, his body giving out after decades of drinking but not before, in a sad reminder of the sheer talent of the man as a writer, he foretold what was about to happen in his final masterpiece, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. But however talented Roth was, reading Pim’s biography it is clear that the writer was not always a very nice man. And it is to his biographer’s credit that he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the flaws in his character, the fabrications and downright lies that Roth told at certain moments, and how badly he could treat others – whether fuelled by alcohol or not.

It is possible to celebrate a life and what was achieved without romanticising, without perpetuating a myth. Joseph Roth was human, and all that made the man is laid bare in these pages.

Endless Flight is beautifully written, incredibly well researched and thoughtful in the conclusions it draws about its subject and the works he created. It tells the story not only of Roth but of the world in which he moved, and as such gives plenty of detail on the political and cultural realities of the time, and what it meant to be Jewish in Europe, both before the First World War and then during the period between the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the Holocaust. It depicts a Europe that has long gone but, like Roth himself, offers up some of the parallels that should sound as a warning to us all.

In Vienna, I stood across the street from the Hotel Bristol and the Opera House. During his time in the Austrian capital, the Bristol was one of Roth’s favourite watering holes. I debated crossing the street to enter the bar, to order a drink in his honour, but I wasn’t sure whether that would be a tribute or – considering how Roth’s story ended – just an exercise in bad taste. I will later learn, via Endless Flight, that Roth’s bar tab in the Hotel Bristol remains open, unpaid to this day. Maybe I should have crossed the street and offered to pay at least some of it. A small gesture, like the walk to Rembrandtstrasse and Wallensteinstrasse, that recognises how much we owe him and the value his work continues to hold. If that would be a minor gesture, Endless Flight is Keiron Pim’s major one; the English-language portrait of Joseph Roth that he so richly deserves.

‘Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth’ by Keiron Pim is published by Granta Books in October 2022. Our reviewer, Paul Scraton, is a Berlin-based writer. His latest book, ‘In the Pines’, is a novella of the forest, told through fragmented stories of a narrator’s lifelong relationship with the woods and the mysteries it contains. It was published in November 2021 by Influx. Paul has for many years worked on joint projects with hidden europe.
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